You by now have undoubtedly heard the opposition’s slogan to Question 2, the English immersion initiative: “Don’t sue teachers.” That’s the name of its Web site as well: DontSueTeachers.org.

Not Bilingual-Education-Is-Good.org or Teach-Kids- Better.org or something like that.

Nope. Education and kids don’t really enter into the equation – which should tell you a lot.

The rap on the state’s education establishment has been that it cares more for its own perks and prerogatives than it does for children. It has opposed or watered down virtually every educational reform – be it charter schools, MCAS, flexible hiring and firing, or teacher accountability. And sure enough, when it comes to Question 2, the reflexive response, particularly from the two principal unions in Massachusetts that represent public school teachers, is to worry about themselves.

It’s puzzling. For decades, teachers have been on a crusade to be recognized as professionals, the same as doctors and lawyers. Doctors, lawyers and other professionals can, of course, be sued. The malpractice system is a critical component to keeping them honest and competent.

But when it comes to teachers, apparently, professionalism only goes so far. Question 2, by the way, says that teachers can be sued only if they “willfully and repeatedly” refuse to follow the law. Odd, isn’t it, that any profession would think it should be immune from intentionally violating the law?

In fact, the debate over Question 2 and the appropriate use of bilingual education is far more complex and subtle than opponents – or even proponents – would have you believe.

Massachusetts adopted the nation’s first bilingual law in 1971. It has been an appalling failure. Rather than integrate the children of immigrants into the classroom, the system has kept them segregated from their English-speaking peers. Results from MCAS tests are now beginning to show the real costs of bilingual education: Bilingual kids learn English less well, they do worse in other subjects and they enter the real world after high school unprepared to be a part of American society.

These, in many respects, are the issues that motivate former Chelsea High School Principal Lincoln Tamayo, himself a Cuban immigrant. Tamayo is fed up with bilingual education’s failure. Immersion, he argues, teaches English better and mainstreams kids sooner. That’s why he signed on as chairman of the Question 2 campaign.

And surely he is right. Compared to the state’s 1971 system of bilingual education, Question 2 would be a vast improvement.

But a funny thing happened on the way from last year’s signature collection to the November ballot: The Legislature changed the law.

Earlier this year, the state put in place a major reform that, quite clearly, is itself a big improvement over bilingual education. Like Question 2, the new law discards the old bilingual system and focuses on kids learning English. School districts need to develop plans for doing that and are subject to severe penalties if they fail. And, thanks to MCAS, they can’t avoid being held accountable; the statewide test will show which schools are doing their jobs and which ones are not.

State Rep. Peter Larkin (D-Pittsfield) argues that the new legislation – which he co-authored – makes Question 2 unnecessary. “We’re fighting yesterday’s war,” he says.

Perhaps. In many respects the differences between Question 2 and the 2002 law are matters of degree, not principle. Question 2 makes English immersion the default system of education. Waivers are allowed – especially if children are older than 10 and thus have a harder time learning English – but they are relatively difficult to get.

The 2002 law, meanwhile, allows districts more flexibility. English immersion is acceptable but other systems, such as two-way bilingual (which attempts to educate in two languages) are also OK. The new law, more than Question 2, focuses on results rather than insisting on just a single, acceptable way of learning English.

All of which sounds great but for one problem: The old lobby for bilingual education remains strong. Educators resist change. And because the new law allows school districts choice in the matter, the fear is that all it may be doing is postponing the day of reckoning, allowing recalcitrant bureaucrats to continue in their old ways. Question 2, on the other hand, would force them to reform immediately.

One wishes that it were possible to combine the best elements of the 2002 law and Question 2. The problem with referenda, unfortunately, is that they are up-or-down propositions. Voters thus have an uncomfortable choice in November: Do they believe that school administrators will embrace the reforms of the new law or is a bigger stick, in the form of Question 2, needed? In the face of red-herring campaigns like “Don’t sue teachers,” my bet is voters, distrustful of the old guard, end up choosing the stick.

Tom Keane can be reached at tomkeane@tomkeane.com.



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